Things to Buy Before You Move to South Africa

*** UPDATE: There is a newer version of this blog post: 19 Things to Put on Your Shopping List for South Africa. ***

Prospective expats have asked me what they should buy before moving here, and it is an excellent question. Some things are just too expensive in South Africa, some are impossible to find, and some are at least so cumbersome to track down that it’s easier to buy them abroad or have friends bring them when visiting. I’m sure by publishing these items here I will get a flood of protest from South Africans who will assure me that indeed those things can all be bought in South Africa (probably from a street vendor!), but all the better. Then at least I will have found out where to get them! Also, please note that my suggestions are mainly for expats from the U.S. – my German shopping list is different yet again (and includes, for instance, Schokomüsli).

Here is what’s on my list:

  • Ziploc bags – believe it or not, these are hard to find here. You can get some Glad products here, but sandwich bags are not typically among them, and the local sandwich/freezer bags don’t come with the zip part, not even a fold-over closure. I did end up finding some really nice ones in Chinatown, but not everyone will want to go there.
  • Sneakers/tennis shoes – very expensive in South Africa; if you have kids, buy several sizes up; if they play any sports, like soccer, I would by cleats as well.
  • Starbucks beans – even you can now order Starbucks coffee in a few places, you can’t buy the beans here. Hint, hint, to our next visitors from the U.S.!
  • Power cord adapters/multi-strips/transformers – as mentioned in My Top Expat Tips.
  • Advil/Motrin – I haven’t yet found any Ibuprofen in South Africa; the most common pain medication, especially for kids, is Paracetamol, which has the same ingredient as Tylenol. I was bummed when I wanted to stock up on Children’s Motrin during our last US trip and couldn’t find any, only to learn later that it had been pulled off the shelves due to a recall. But Advil did the trick as well.
  • Chili powder – isn’t that the silliest thing? But plain old chili powder has been impossible to find, and I checked all the grocery stores. I made do for a recent pot of chili with some ground chili flakes, cumin, and oregano, but it still wasn’t the same. Mexican food in general is hard to find in South Africa.
  • Amazon Kindle – great to have in a country where books are unusually expensive; read more at Your Kindle in South Africa.
  • Pepperoni – okay, a bit dodgy to wedge a few pack of pepperoni between your underwear, but my kids have lamented the fact that you can absolutely not find a pepperoni pizza in South Africa. Pepperoni just isn’t sold here in any form. Salami yes, and good variety too, but pepperoni no.
  • Battery-operated alarm clocks – if you’re an American, one of your first errands will be buying an alarm clock, because none of your old ones will work. However, they don’t have much selection here on radio alarms, and the ones they do sell are often not good quality (one friend of mine swears that all the 2nd choice products that didn’t pass muster in Europe end up with us in Africa). In any case, you don’t really want something to plug in anyway, as often as the power seems to be interrupted, so what I would do is order small battery-run alarms for the entire family from Amazon before you leave. That way you’ll be covered and can strike one post-move errand  off your list.
  • Plastic coat hangers – I’m all good on those, thank you very much (in case you’re a prospective visitor:-) but I do remember from my early days that those are not as abundant as back home. They’re not impossible to find (I bought mine off a street vendor almost the first day  here, which started a long tradition of buying hard-to-find things off street vendors) but definitely more expensive here.
I’m sure there is more to add to this list (and, like I mentioned above, perhaps things to take off it as well), so I invited all your comments!